I strongly believe that students need to feel safe at school and require a climate that enables them to be emotionally ready to learn in the classroom. This environment can only be established if we develop strong relationships built upon mutual respect and trust. Our students need to feel that teachers and key adults care about them and have their wellbeing at heart. 

Key Questions

  • How are we creating an environment in our schools that supports students’ attachment to their learning environment, and to what extent do they feel they belong?
  • How are we designing an environment that nurtures student’s natural creativity?
  • Do students feel that they are an authentic part of their school’s learning community?

Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

We must enable our learning community to cultivate self-awareness of their emotions, and the impact emotion has on working and learning. One example often given when adults provide supervision in difficult situations is the need for the adult to put on their oxygen mask first before helping the child adjust his or her oxygen mask. We need to be aware of our own emotions and aware of our behaviors’ impact on others’ emotions. I would like us to consider the extent to which our emotions affect us positively or negatively in the workplace.

Consider yourself as a teacher in terms of the following questions:

  • How do you feel about sharing your feelings and emotions? With adults? With children?
  • How do you react to the feelings and emotions of others?
  • How does your students’ negative behaviour make you feel?
  • How do you self-regulate?

We have to develop a secure understanding of our own feelings and emotions to support our students’ social and emotional learning. By enabling our students to feel safe and secure, we will have a far greater impact on their academic learning and development. Self-awareness and self-regulation will be even more significant in our post-Covid world of emotional and academic recovery and renewal.

How do we teach Emotional Literacy?

When our students feel sad or angry, their negative behavior should be used as a learning opportunity to encourage them to improve their behaviour, similar to how English and Mathematics are learned. Students learn Math from misconceptions, and mistakes can be used as learning opportunities. Consider the extent that we show this same attitude when learning to improve behaviour. For example, a toddler may communicate his emotions through shouting or stamping his feet.  How do we see perceived negative behaviour in students as a communication of their emotions? We should hold the same high expectations and provide the same personalised learning opportunities to improve behaviour as we do with subject specialisms.

Our Class Interactions

I do not believe that our class interactions are ever neutral – we either have a positive effect on our students or a negative effect.  We either empower them to believe in themselves as learners, or we disempower them. We must enable our students to understand that their emotions and feelings will be discussed and listened to and that our job is to coach them to improve their behaviour. The reasoning for this is to enable them to self-regulate their emotions and improve in their learning.

So what do we need to do?

Cultivate a culture where it is okay to make mistakes; It’s okay to say you don’t understand; Okay to say you feel sad, angry, or unsure at times. Create a classroom environment where the curriculum focuses on the student’s personal, social, and emotional development. To do this, we need teachers who are equally confident in learning from mistakes and sharing their emotions and feelings. By developing students who are personally, socially, and emotionally aware of themselves as learners, we are more willing to develop independent, creative, and critical thinkers who are resilient and unafraid of taking risks and learning from mistakes.

Dr. Kulvarn Atwal FCCT has spent his entire career teaching and leading in East London schools and is currently Executive Head Teacher of Highlands and Uphall Primary Schools. Highlands was recently awarded the Mayor of London’s Schools for Success award for the fourth year in a row; one of only 12 primary or secondary schools in London to achieve this award. Kulvarn specialises in teacher professional learning. His doctoral thesis highlighted the factors that impact upon teacher engagement in professional learning activities, with a particular focus on workplace learning theories and action research. He has worked with educators across the world to develop expansive learning environments in schools. He has published his first book, ‘The Thinking School. Developing a Dynamic Learning Community’. He occasionally tweets at @thinkingschool2

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